SPONSORED: At its heart, Alaska's cannabis industry is no different from any other business in the state. The entrepreneurs behind the state's newest businesses live here, raise children here, and want to see their companies grow.

But owning a canna-business isn't exactly like owning other kinds of small businesses. For one thing, there's a lingering stigma attached to selling a plant that's been exiled to the black market for decades.

What's a business owner to do? Some cannabis industry leaders are challenging negative perceptions by ramping up their philanthropic efforts to benefit — and build goodwill in — the community.

'We are giving back… in any way that we can'

It can be an uphill battle, admitted Aaron Ralph. The owner of Alaska Cannabis Exchange in Anchorage, Ralph is a member of the Anchorage Cannabis Business Association, a chapter of the Alaska Marijuana Industry Association.

"It's really important for us to reach out to the community who maybe does not support us, so they can see that we are giving back to the community in any way that we can," Ralph said.

Now that Alaska's first cannabis businesses are starting to establish themselves and get into the groove of doing business, more of them are starting to reach out and find ways to be of service to their communities.

In November, according to Ralph, the Anchorage Cannabis Business Association launched a food drive to benefit The Children's Lunchbox.

"They're really excited about getting some canned food and shelf-stable food in their warehouse," Ralph said.

Seventeen area cannabis shops signed on to an effort to collect non-perishable food for the Bean's Cafe program that provides year-round meals to help feed Anchorage's 22,000 hungry children. Besides serving meals at Title I schools and summer meal sites, The Children's Lunchbox provides packages of food on Fridays for kids to bring home so they don't go hungry over the weekend.

Partnerships across industries

For one Alaska canna-business, community involvement has become a cottage industry.

Trich Productions (named for trichomes, the cannabinoid glands on cannabis plants) is a statewide company based in Wasilla and founded by brothers Kerby Coman, owner of Wasilla's Green Degree retail store, and Cody Coman. They originally launched Trich Productions to stage an anniversary event for Green Degree and quickly found that they enjoyed the new endeavor.

"I found a passion for putting on cannabis-friendly events," Kerby Coman said. "It's really great to be involved and just have the cannabis community's involvement and support."

Event planning quickly became charity organizing. It was clear, Kerby said, that the industry needed to find ways to give back, "just to show that we're not any different than any other local business owners."

This September the company staged a coat drive in conjunction with local radio station KHitz 107.1 FM, an event they put together in a matter of weeks.

"The cannabis community all pitched in," Cody Coman said. "We raised about $15,000, and we were able to give away just over 500 coats and gloves."

But it wasn't just the cannabis industry that showed up. Held in a ballroom donated by Grand View Inn and Suites in Wasilla, Coats for Kids attracted support from nearly 30 different area businesses.

"It was an event that really helped bring not only the cannabis and the local community together, but also businesses that have nothing to do with the industry," Cody said. "There were people that stepped out of the woodwork to help out … companies like Ink Spot, Genesis Barber Shop, private individuals, and the people that run Thrive Nation. I mean, it was huge, huge support that we had that day."

Raising awareness, changing minds

It's that intersection — cooperation between cannabis businesses and more "mainstream" organizations — that the Coman brothers say is important to the industry and what it's able to do in the community.

As canna-businesses continue to crop up, Alaskans are getting more used to seeing dispensaries involved in the community. But familiarity and acceptance aren't the same thing.

Cody and Kerby Coman recently planned a dinner and silent auction called Green Christmas to support development of an alpine ski area at Hatcher Pass. As they planned that event, they said, they encountered business owners who supported their philanthropic events but were reluctant to get involved with a cannabis industry service project for fear of backlash.

"There are a couple of local businesses that want to be supportive, but they're afraid what the public perception will be if they become too involved," Cody said.

Still, he added, change is happening gradually. One business owner he approached was anti-marijuana, but very curious about non-intoxicating cannabidiol (CBD). That conversation opened the door to a partnership.

"We're doing a food drive with the Mat-Su Food Bank and we have bins all over town," Cody said. "(She), a non-cannabis business owner, was kind enough to let us put a bin in her location."

Goodwill and growth

That's how perceptions are changing, Kerby and Cody say — one interaction at a time.

"It's about us breaking the negative stigma that's been placed on cannabis for the past 60 years," Kerby said. "We're just out here to really show people who these cannabis business owners are, what they represent, what kind of morality that they carry with them, and just the fact that it's a newfound industry, that cannabis businesses obviously make enough money to be able to do something, nonprofit-wise, with it."

And as with any other business, there's a benefit to philanthropy beyond just goodwill: tax write-offs.

"They can either pay it in taxes, or they can join us and we give them an avenue to put it back into the local community, something that's going to benefit people that are around town every day," Cody said.

Trich Productions is planning coat and food drives again next year, and Cody said they intend to make Green Christmas an annual event as well.

"You're going to see yearly growth with the different (cannabis) businesses starting to participate," he said.

Where community involvement is concerned, Ralph says Alaskans have just started to see what the industry can accomplish.

"The sky's the limit when it comes to what we can do in the future," he said.

Trich Productions, Alaska's premier cannabis-friendly production company,  is proud to present Green Christmas, an industry mixer and fundraiser for SKEETAWK in support of the next phase of development of the Hatcher Pass Alpine Ski Area.

Blunt Talk is a series of original articles sponsored by Alaska cannabis businesses and organizations to highlight the real people, families, businesses and groups impacted by the legalization of cannabis in Alaska.

This story was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with the series sponsors. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.